Sophie Burrows’s graphic novel debut, Crushing, follows two solitary twentysomethings around London, leading readers to wonder when, or if, the lonesome duo will recognize each other as kindred spirits. Burrows completed the first draft of Crushing while earning her master’s degree in children’s book illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and her original sequence of wordless, colored-pencil images earned her the 2019 Victoria & Albert Museum Award for student illustrator of the year. Her 2020 picture book Ig Pig and Og Frog! is available in the U.K., and her portfolio ranges from wildly colorful children’s fare to tales told in subtler hues. Crushing, a sensitive and drily humorous narrative, marks Burrows’s first U.S. publication. We spoke with Burrows about the pleasures of drawing by hand, the open spaces in wordless narratives, and whether her socially awkward characters have a future together.
You created Crushing using a limited palette of brilliant reds and neutral blues. The reds pop into the foreground while the blues do the work of grayscale. How did you develop this color balance?
Color is always in the forefront of my mind, and with Crushing I wanted to use color symbolically. Because it was quite an emotional story, I was thinking about all the emotions you can portray. Red can mean different things, like passion and love and embarrassment, and I picked the blues as almost a background to the reds. As I began to find my way with the story, I was thinking how overwhelming the blues could be, especially with subject matter like loneliness or anxiety. That’s how I chose those colors.
You drew Crushing by hand on paper rather than on a tablet. Why did you choose this time-consuming illustration process?
I love working by hand so much. With my picture book I hand-painted the elements but there was a lot of assembling on Photoshop, putting things together. I did not get quite as absorbed in the process. With Crushing I was drawing on huge sheets of paper, with some final Photoshop tweaking to adjust colors. I felt like I was getting lost in it, which was just lovely. It made me feel closer to the story, taking away the screen and concentrating on making it by hand. I did go through a lot of colored pencils! And it was just three colors in the end. Since I was making it during the first wave of the pandemic, I was worried that they were going to go out of stock. I ordered boxes of them to get me through the 160 pages.
How did you develop your original manuscript into the finished book?
It started as a 24-page comic that followed the female character as she went about her day, looking for connection. It ended with the two characters in a kebab shop [sitting a few stools apart along a counter], seen through the window. It was the first time someone had interacted with her, and the scene is still in the book. The way I expanded it was just to think, “What would happen next?”
After establishing the female character, the story tracks the male character’s misadventures—he takes a humiliating temp job and copes poorly with everyday rudeness. How did you decide to alternate between these two individuals?
I’d been thinking of a few ways to lengthen the comic—perhaps an anthology, with lots of different people—but I was captivated by the male character.
I feel like the female character is always hopeful. That was the seed for this book: this idea of somebody who keeps getting taken down by life but constantly believes they’re going to meet people they can connect with. And I decided it would be interesting to find someone who’s the opposite of that. The characters have similarities, but he’s not comfortable with reaching out. The negative things that happen stop him from putting himself out there. It was interesting to separate them into two characters and see how those characters might differ in the way they moved about their city and experienced being alone.
Your sequences are nearly wordless, with characters communicating through gestures and glances. As you revised, did you consider adding spoken conversations?
In the development of the final book, silence absolutely was integral. I was pleased my editor wanted to keep it wordless. Because it was about these themes of loneliness and solitude, it felt like such a good fit. Another reason was that I was selling [the short manuscript] in comic shops and stalls at markets, and I got feedback that people were finding things in the pictures that I maybe hadn’t intended, definitely not consciously. It was almost as though the wordlessness was creating a space for them to be able to put themselves in the situations. They were projecting a level of connection to the characters because there weren’t words dictating each specific situation. When I went to development, I was treading a fine line between making sure there was a story and anchor the whole way through, but leaving moments for people to sit with their feelings and think of how they felt in crowds or on their own.
Who is your ideal audience? For instance, the heroine has a dating app on her phone and the young man visits a pub. But your readership may be younger.
When I was creating it, I wasn’t so much considering “this is a teen book” or “this is a book for adults.” It’s marketed as an adult book in the U.K., but I don’t think it’s a question of suitability for YA. I’d like to think it would appeal to both teen and adult audiences, because of the universality.
All of us experience these emotions. Mental health issues, feelings of loneliness, feelings of exclusion—these things happen to all of us. I approached the narrative as moments that are stitched together, and I suppose both of the characters [pull from] autobiographical [elements]—not just memories from my 20s, but feelings from when I was a teenager. The characters are both influenced by the way I feel sometimes, and we can all feel a bit for both of them.
At the end, your characters laugh together at a store self-checkout. As you say, they’re such different personalities. How’s it going to work out with these two?
Well. It’s interesting. Even I’m not 100% sure if they get together. I know they definitely connect, for sure. They share a moment, in that they don’t feel as alone as they did before. But you don’t ever have a close-up of them talking.
I was thinking mostly about those days where you walk around and don’t speak to anyone. Especially if you live alone, you can go weeks without interacting with someone, with modern life the way it is. You can buy all your shopping from a self-service till, you can get coffee from a machine that makes it for you and pay by card. You don’t have to talk to people if you don’t want to. When you have those days, and you do talk to somebody, it can completely change how you’re feeling and completely change the course of that day.
They meet and they interact. Whether or not they take that further I want my reader to decide for themselves. I know there is a connection that happens, and that was the most important thing for me. I really liked that there was ambiguity to it.
Crushing by Sophie Burrows. Algonquin Young Readers, $22.95 Jan. 11 ISBN 978-1-64375-239-6